The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described all history as a “gruesome dominion of nonsense and accident,” and regarded political democracy as only “the nonsense of the ‘greatest number.’” Perhaps he was right. Yet, throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Leftists had assumed that democracy made radical social transformation a near inevitability. The great majority, they thought, would surely pursue their own interest in social emancipation if allowed political participation in society. As the 20th century unfolded and this did not take place, there arose a psychoanalytic tradition that attempted to grapple with this failure. Wilhelm Reich, an exemplar of this tradition, wrote in 1933: “At the bottom of the failure to achieve a genuine social revolution lies the failure of the masses of the people: They reproduce the ideology and forms of life of political reaction in their own structures and thereby in every new generation.” While much has changed in the intervening 80 years, certain fundamentals remain the same: the people rule, but the politics of democracy evidence forms of mass irrationality, not the desire for emancipation. Can psychoanalysis, in the best tradition of the political Freudians, help us to better understand and potentially move beyond this situation?
Looking Backward / Looking Forward
Isaac D. Balbus, Chris Cutrone and Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Ben Laundau-Beispiel (moderator)
I: In the 20th century, Leftists around the world attempted to bring about socialism, but failed. Revolutionary movements betrayed their own goals, and those who seemed to have the most to gain from the success of revolutionary politics sided with reaction. Marxist parties created police states, and workers followed the leadership of racist demagogues. The right to participate in elections was secured, but today socialism seems less possible than ever. The intention of this panel is to explore why the political enfranchisement of the working class has not led to socialism, and whether the insights of psychoanalysis are relevant to answering this question.
II: Following the panel, audience members will have the opportunity to participate in a small group discussion led by a panelist of their choosing. Discussions will focus on how those concerned with social emancipation today might overcome the failures of the past and move forward. Why do the politics of the Left fail to gain a mass following despite miserable social conditions? Could investigations into contemporary mass psychology be of any use in specifying and overcoming obstacles to a revived Left? Friendly debate on these questions is encouraged.
Educational objectives: At the conclusion of the program, participants will be able to: 1) Describe several different approaches to the relationship of psychoanalysis to political and social change; 2) Assess the utility of psychoanalytic theory as a tool of historical analysis; 3) Analyze how contemporary social change is registered in patients’ internal lives; and 4) Discuss the merits and criticisms of an approach to psychoanalytic social psychology.